10 May ~ A few months ago, the world belonged to Shanghai Shenhua, or so you would have thought listening to the club's chairman, Zhu Jun. Didier Drogba, Guti, Matthew Upson, Alvaro Recoba and Andres D'Alessandro were just a handful of the players supposedly on their way to link up with new star striker Nicolas Anelka and their equally illustrious manager, Jean Tigana. Pre-season games were a mass of French flags and optimism. For a fanbase that saluted its players to the tune of La Marseillaise even before the arrival of Gallic duo, it seemed like destiny was written. Yet an inevitable march to victory quickly turned into a very public humiliation once the football started.
Sloppy draws against local rivals Jiangsu Sainty and Hangzhou Greentown bookended defeats to hated nemesis Beijing Guoan and reigning champions Guangzhou Evergrande.
Predictably, Tigana became the focal point for criticism, despite a mounting injury crisis and an extremely difficult opening set of fixtures. Though the howls from the stands grew louder each game, the prickly Frenchman did not seem to care – a useful trait for a manager but one that meant he did not see his downfall coming until it was too late.
When it arrived, the end was swift and ruthless. It started out of the blue on a bland Wednesday afternoon with an unannounced purge of Tigana's entire coaching staff – supposedly at the behest of the players. The dust had barely settled on that story when the experienced midfielder, Jiang Kun, criticised the manager in a press conference to a salivating gaggle of Shanghainese journalists.
Things were moving at a frantic pace but the silence from Shenhua's star striker was deafening. Before long, Anelka announced his own appointment as player-manager on Twitter.
Since then, things have stabilised to a certain degree. For one thing, Anelka is no longer player-manager after a disastrous 1-0 home loss to unfashionable Tianjin TEDA. With former Democratic Republic of Congo coach Jean Florent Ibenge now in charge, results have improved. A couple of dire draws and a fluky victory against old foe Dalian Shide have pacified the Shenhua fans temporarily.
That said, the problems surrounding Shenhua are endemic and Ibenge will have much to contend with. Most significant is the problem of Anelka, who has looked disinterested and injury-prone since his arrival in Shanghai. Having been made captain, then seen Tigana forced out, Anelka looks to be untouchable, even though his prolonged dry spell in front of goal is starting to become a cause for concern. Rumours of Anelka's influence with Zhu abound. Ibenge, trying to establish himself as the sole dressing room authority, might go the same way as his predecessor.
All of this means that for the rest of Chinese football, schadenfreude is flavour of the day. The clubs that quietly went about bolstering their squads are watching on as Shanghai struggle to keep their heads above water. Zhu is talking about selling up, the players look nervous and a previously boisterous set of supporters are starting to brace themselves for an unwelcome season of mid-table mediocrity.
False dawns are regular occurrences in football but few have been as self-inflicted as that of Shanghai Shenhua, who, having taken ten points from a possible 27, might already be running out of time to save their season. Andrew Crawford